A few mornings ago, as I was sipping my coffee and reading the news, an interesting tidbit caught my eye. Apparently, most student loan borrowers estimate they will pay their loans back in 5-10 years. I quickly did my own math and realized I’m on year 10.5, and project I’ll be done in about two more years. I began to reflect on the last ten years and why exactly it’s taken me so long to shrink the debt balance, and I came up with some pretty sound answers.
Starting loan amount: $35,000
Loan amount as of last payment on May 31st, 2019: $10,961.85
7 Reasons I’m Still Paying Back my Student Loans
High Interest Rates
My loans were private, I did not have a co-signer, and the interest rates were variable. This mean my rates were sky high. Across my ten loans my lowest interest rate was around 2.5% and my highest interest rate was 14.25%. There were many, many years where I was paying 3k in interest a year, that’s around $300 a month! Two steps forward, one step back was a phrase I knew all too well. I’ve easily paid over 10k in interest over the course of the last ten years, I’m scared to run the numbers but it’s likely much higher than even that.
I, like most graduates, found a hard time finding a career-oriented position right after graduation. I had all this schooling, and absolutely no experience on the job. Couple that with the fact that it was the year 2008 and the recession had just hit. Companies were downsizing, people were losing jobs, and here I was sending out resumes everyday while watching it all unfold on the news. After about three months I did acquire employment, but then I was laid off at my next two positions due to the ripple effect of the recession.
Getting my feet under me
Third time’s a charm and I finally found a position that I remained at for four years and had much opportunity for growth. But it still took months for me to feel firm footing under my feet. For one thing, the first year of the position I was merely a temp. This meant no benefits, no paid time off, and I was constantly waiting for the axe to fall. Having just been laid off twice, I was weary to put anything toward my loans except the minimum, should my butt be cast out on the street again. I was also experiencing life without roommates or parents for the first time, and that the initial setup of an apartment is expensive. I had to pay first and last months rent, installation fees for all my utilities, and necessities like cookwear, beds, sheets, etc… I’d say it was more than a year before I had all my finances in order and was able to start contributing more than the minimum to my student loans.
I’m simply not one of those people that’s fortunate enough to bring in six figures. Most people aren’t. We hear a lot of success stories from people that live in big cities that pay their debts down in two years by being super frugal, but the less you make the less money you have after the bare necessities of everyday life. My first job out of college I made $16.50 an hour with no benefits, and no paid time off. I’ve never lived above my means, but even so, there isn’t much left over after taxes, social security, and Medicare, not to mention your other bills! I make quite a bit more now, but I’m still nowhere near that six-figure range, not even when I factor in my husband’s income.
Fell off the Wagon
Almost everyone that is paying down debt has fallen off the bandwagon from time to time. Paying off student loans, unless you have very little or make a six figure income, is a long term goal. Long term goals take a lot of willpower to reach. You must constantly have that single goal in the forefront of your mind. Unfortunately, we live in a society (here in the US), that is absolutely driven by consumerism. Being a penny pincher is simply going against the grain of everyone around you. There is pressure coming at you from all sides to blow your money on junk you don’t even need.
It can also be disheartening to put so much money toward your student loans each month, especially when you don’t see the balance going down quickly. When your salary is modest, it’s hard to remember that you actually received something for all that money you’re still forking over. It’s hard to send hundreds even thousands of your hard-earned money to your lender every single month, when sometimes you just want to take a trip, or buy that handbag, or wine and dine your spouse. It takes a ton of grit to stay the course, and I applaud everyone that’s doing it. If you do fall off the bandwagon, don’t be hard on yourself. It’s a natural part of the process and is no reason to give up entirely. Assess the situation and start saving again next week, or next month. A few months isn’t going to set you back that much, just make sure you keep on truckin’.
I’m not talking about running a half marathon, or hitting your goal weight, I’m talking about once in a lifetime events that may very well derail you from saving for a bit of time: wedding, having a baby (the medical costs associated with it), and other medical problems.
We were engaged in 2017 and married in August of 2018. The engagement was exactly a year, and while we didn’t go into debt while planning the wedding, and while I still made more than the minimum on my student loan payments, almost every penny of our monthly cash flow went toward the wedding. I cannot stress how much our wedding was DIY, too. I’m even compiling a list for a post, because we managed to save money on almost every line item when planning our wedding, but there were 175 guests and it was still the most expensive year of my life. As much as I loved every moment of our wedding, I was really relieved to get back to normal life as we know it and be able to put some serious money toward my loans the following year. During that year, the balance on my loans barely budged.
The balance between saving and paying off your student loan debt, or any debt, is one you have to strike for yourself. Most debt gurus will tell you to establish an emergency fund and then throw every last penny at your loans. This is great advice, but after years of paying my debt down and reaching my mid-thirties I knew I had to start putting something into savings.
Once I felt like my debt was under control, the balance was smaller, and the interest wasn’t eating up as much of the principal payment, I began to take what I saved each month and put some into savings. It started as an emergency fund of 1K, but I found that was easy to reach, so I’ve been socking money into it ever since. Usually, it’s between 100 to 400 a month, but I’ve been doing it so steadily that it’s risen quite quickly in no time at all. It’s much easier to see a balance grow from saving money, than see a balance shrink from paying down debt.
The downside of this is obvious: I’d pay my student loans back more quickly if I wasn’t putting some money into savings each month. The upside is that once my debt is paid off, I won’t be starting at square one with savings, I’ll already have a hearty little nest going.
Don’t worry, in the vein of paying off my debt aggressively, I’m putting the vast majority to the debt, it just gives me peace of mind to have something squirreled away for a safety net.
If you’re on track to pay off your loans in two years, congratulations! But there’s a whole sea of us who will probably take much, much longer. I’m going to apply an overused phrase to paying off debt: it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s, and don’t lose heart. Dollar by dollar, you’ll be debt free eventually!